How to Overcome the Dark side of Flexibility

By Ludovica Chiappini

 

Introduction

Work occupies most of the individuals waking hours being a crucial part of their identities and an essential source of their sustenance. Work can liberate but also enslave people preventing them from having personal time, nurturing social relations and providing care in the family (Sweet, Meiksins, 2013, p. 1). The dedication to private life has shown to be as important as the commitment to work for a gratifying and non-regrettable existence. Hence, integrating work and the personal sphere has proven to be the just solution to avoid the enduring perception of “work-slavery”. The achievement of the so-called work-life balance can be understood as “the overall level of contentment resulting from an assessment of one’s degree of success at meeting work and private life demands” (Valcour, 2007, p. 1512). The lack of this contentment is one of the major contributors to social costs (Cooper, 2009).

Nowadays, the need for work-life balance is considerable. Working in the new economy is colonizing domains from which it was previously absent. The extinction of lunch hours, the growing tendency to take work home on the weekends, in the evening, along vacations now have become a norm. In the old economy, workers were supposed to be physically present at their work sites and to structure their time commitment in accordance with rigid full-time schedules (Sweet, Meiksins, 2013, p. 37). Indeed, the traditional working industrial model, as properly illustrated in the Charlie Chaplin movie “Modern Times” (lecture 2016/01/20, class movie) was characterized by extremely defined working hours punctuated by the sound of a bell (8-h work day, 5-day work and free evenings). After the final ringing, private life began and the issue to balance work and life was not significant. On the contrary, with the coming of the post-industrial model of work, international competition, technological changes, the rise of a service economy and the declining economic trends, the organization of work changed leaving the door open for the flexibilization of working times and workplaces. Therefore, a growing attention occurred with regard to the impact of these new contours of work on individuals’ work-life balance and their quality of life. Academic researches on flexible work arrangements have pointed out the complex relationship with work-life balance. At their best, flexible arrangements might provide major workers’ autonomy and control over their schedules, however, they can also jeopardize personal, familial and social life. Flexibility does not always equal “family-friendly”. It could be both the solution or the cause of the work-life balance deficiency (Anttila, Oinas, Tammelin, & Nätti, 2015). The double-sided effect of flexible work arrangements depends on the way they are interpreted in a specific political environment and whether backing measures to overcome the dark side of flexibility are present or not.

Based on these premises, the purpose of the essay is to solve the “hamletic doubt” whether the two dimensions of flexibility, spatial and temporal, benefit or harm the work-life balance. To this end, the paper lies on the table the ensuing questions: how temporal and spatial flexibility of work in the new economy are affecting the individual balance between work and private life? How to manage the major impacts of flexible work arrangements on living conditions?  Taking the cue from academic studies, the essay reasonably states that spatial flexibility is not associated with a positive perception of work-life balance, while temporal flexibility, especially the degree of autonomy individuals have over their working hours, can have a beneficial role when it is regulated. Hence, government and workplace supports play a pivotal role in moderating the dark aspects of flexibility and enhancing its beneficial impacts on work-life balance.

The first section of the paper analyzes the concept of work flexibility pertaining to both temporal and spatial dimensions. Exploring official data and referring to some work experiences, the essay will assume that spatial flexibility is not associated with a meaningful perception of work-life balance while, temporal flexibility might be potentially beneficial.  As a consequence of these preliminary conclusions, the paper will mainly focus on temporal flexibility. Although it can be seen as a possible solution to balance work-life conflicts, the second section of the research will illustrate some limitations of flexible work time arrangements attributable to the unsocial working hours in the 24/7 economy and the overwork. These considerations will lead to the idea of indispensable supports in order to enhance the brighter sphere of flexibility. Hence, the third section will analyze several backing measures concluding that the State is essential through the institutionalization of appropriate flexible work policies. Also, the workplace support is relevant if it customizes work schedules enhancing workers’ control. Here, the crucial role of trade unions in the achievement of workers’ time autonomy will be brought up. Finally, conclusions will be drawn in the last section.

 

  1. Temporal and spatial flexibility of work in the new economy: the implications on work-life balance

 

Dealing with work flexibility means analyzing both its time and place-related dimensions. In particular, temporal flexibility concerns the variation of work schedules including the number of hours worked, the timing, the intensity and the degree of time autonomy individuals have over their working hours (Anttila, Oinas, Tammelin, & Nätti, 2015). While, spatial flexibility pertains to the practice of remote work such as working at home, mobile or nomadic working (Sullivan, 2012). The public-based perception tends to highlight the brighter side of flexible work arrangements. “Work whenever and wherever you want” is emphasized as a “family friendly” solution based upon the assertions that spatial and temporal flexibility will increase time for non-work responsibilities improving people ability to organize their daily life to successfully meet both work and non-work demand (lecture 2016/01/13, class video: 9 to 5 no longer). However, this general optimism is held back by empirical researches that warn about the social costs of flexibility.

In particular, some analytical studies have focused on how spatial and temporal flexibility in the new economy affect the individual balance between work and private life (Anttila, Oinas, Tammelin, & Nätti, 2015). Firstly, they relate to the impact of spatial flexibility on the satisfaction and well-being in relation to private life. Predominantly, the aspect of working from home is discussed. The common idea is that home-based work has the potential to enhance work-life balance offering grater autonomy and allow workers to better organized their time without feeling like “a rat in a maze” at the office. However, the findings show that spatial flexibility is not positively associated with the perception of work-life balance. Indeed, the entry to work into private spheres “throws-off” balance because of simultaneous demands to follow both work and home roles. It brings about negative consequences including increased work-family tension, decreased career development opportunities and visibility, increased work hours and social isolation (Tremblay, 2003; Harris, 2003). Hence, spatial flexibility makes life more stressful by blurring boundaries between work and private life (Maruyama, Tietze, 2012). The findings of these studies are not so upsetting and they recall the home-based work experience of a friend of mine that is suitable to observe the concrete social consequences of spatial flexibility. Indeed, his independent entrepreneurial home-based career is explicative. Taking the cue from his testimony, the self-employer reveals that working from home is alienating, blurs the boundaries between work and home life and did not allow him to built social relationships that could have been potentially beneficial not only for his psychological well-being but also for development opportunities of his e-commerce company. The evidence of his dissatisfaction is the choice to rent an office escaping from the misleading atmosphere of the “home-working dimension”.

Furthermore, the researches highlight how spatial flexibility can increase gender occupational segregation. In fact, women are more likely to engage with home-based work rather than men due to gender socialization influences and the stereotyped assumptions about women’s behaviors and desires (Sweet, Meiksins, 2013, p. 134). So, even if the introduction of remote working would enhance work-life balance, if it reduces gender equity, then any overall impact on quality of life is seriously undermined. Finally, spatial flexibility encourages the detrimental potential of technology in the time management. The “Silicon Valley Culture” is based on computer technology that was supposed to save time, however – allowing people to work wherever they want – it paradoxically led to the overwork and the “rule of technology”. Indeed, computers are increasingly dictating how people use their time bringing several social consequences on the table: personal relations are digitalized, time pressure affects the domestic stability, emotional downsizing is the new attitude and work-life balance is traded off for efficiency (lecture 2016/02/24, “Time Frenzy: Keeping Up with Tomorrow”). In essence, spatial flexibility plays a negative role in the achievement of work-life balance (Maruyama, Tietze, 2012).

On the contrary, the same studies have also focused on temporal flexibility especially, the variation of the number of hours worked, the timing and intensity of work and the schedules’ control. They reveal that temporal flexibility can be perceived as a more relevant factor to enhance work-life balance under certain circumstances (Anttila, Oinas, Tammelin, & Nätti, 2015). These findings leave the door open to grasp the brighter side of temporal flexibility and overcome its damaging aspects. Hence, they orient the paper to concentrate on temporal flexibility. Primarily, it is reasonable to unearth the backlashes of flexible working times in order to pinpoint the set of problems related to the issue.  In fact, the outcome of this investigation will support the essay to identify the key agents responsible for managing the negative impacts of temporal flexibility on work-life balance and to “dig up” the feasible measures in order to stimulate the brighter effects.

  1. Unsocial and long working hours: the backlashes of flexible work time arrangements

Flexible work time schedules could be valuable tools for easing the chronic pressure and conflicts imposed by attempting to accomplish both work and non-work responsibilities (Golden, 2001). However, they present some side effects that obstruct rather than help the balancing of work and private life. When flexible time work arrangements are driven by employers’ interest in promoting efficient use of human labor, they encourage overtime and unsocial work hours that merely serve the need of the companies (Chung, Tijdens, 2013). The emergence of new markets, the requirement to coordinate different time zones and to meet the various times of customer demand stimulate a “company-oriented flexibility” and this is the cause of work-life balance deficiency. Researches have shown that the expansion of operating hours, working nights or on weekends is stressful and has detrimental consequences on workers’ physical conditions and psychological health. Moreover, the unsocial work schedules are significantly related to the conflict between work and family and problem in time management (Costa, Sarton, & Akersted, 2006). Hence, the “free capitalistic use” of work time flexibility in a 24/7 economy prejudiced the work-life balance.

Also, when temporal flexibility – even if theoretically “employee-oriented” – arises within an unregulated work environment, it stimulates the risk of workers’ burnout. Indeed, a recent study among professional workers demonstrates that when employees feel the threats of job loss and perceive the lack of supportive measures, they respond to the ability to use flexible arrangements by exerting additional effort in their work (Kelliher, Anderson, 2008). Thus, higher autonomy in the use of working hours may be linked to the lengthening of working hours leading to overwork and prejudicing the work-life balance. This particular side effect of work time flexibility recalls my internship experience at the Italian Ministry of Economic Development. Differently to the permanent public employees with traditional working schedules, my supervisor had a short-term contract as an external worker. He had a consistent degree of time autonomy over his working hours compared to his permanent colleagues, however, this flexibility presses him to lengthen the working hours almost till midnight every day. Thus, his work-life balance was highly compromised.

According to the common opinion, work time management is perceived as a private problematic and so, it has individual solutions. Nevertheless, the issue at stake is relevant and it involves the overall community (ibidem, “Time Frenzy: Keeping Up with Tomorrow”). Hence, work-time flexibility needs to be regulated through effective public policies and the agency of specific actors, “the agents of change”, such as the state and trade unions (Sweet; Meiksins, 2013, p. 201). If left unregulated, flexible work time arrangements will always lead to overwork, unsocial working hours and work pressure. They will always be part of the problem pertaining work-life balance rather than being the solution. To conclude, the negative face of flexible time arrangements substantially depends on the surrounding political and cultural environment and its tendency to leave these measures without any support.

 

  1. State and workplace support: how to overcome the dark side of flexible work time arrangements

 

According to official data (Lippe, et al., 2009), social democratic countries that are based on a socialist welfare-state provide greater supportive measures for flextime arrangements and they have a higher rate of work-life balance satisfaction compared to the liberal and individualistic-based countries (Lecture 2016/01/27, class discussion). The statistics particularly suit to demonstrate the thesis statement of the paper. In fact, they suggest that flexible work time arrangements can be positive or negative varying substantially in respect to the country’s political environment and its supportive measures pertaining to work flexibility. The academic research based on these data has analyzed several backing measures at the state level (public policies on work flexibility) workplace level (job control and flexible work time arrangements) and, finally, private level (having a partner, paid or informal help with a domestic task). According to the findings, the State support have been proven to be fundamental to enhance work-life balance through the institutionalization of public policies such as publicly funded childcare, statutory leave provisions and policies regarding flexible work time practices (Kovacheva, Kabaivanov, & Andreev, 2007; Saraceno et al., 2005). In addition, the role of the State as a regulator is a “nudge” for employers sensitizing them to offer major supports. Indeed, appropriate workplace backing measures can stimulate flexible work time arrangements that positively integrate work and private sphere. Finally, the private instrumental supports have shown not to be so relevant to improve “the balance” (Abendroth, Dulk, 2011).

It is reasonable to conclude that the state plays a crucial role to enhance the work-life balance through regulated flexible arrangements. Thus, the government supports stimulate the brighter side of flexibility. Also, the workplace support is fundamental and supplements state provisions by offering working arrangements such as flexible working hours. Nonetheless, the findings reveal puzzling observations with respect to the workplace supports: flexible timetables can be beneficial only if workers feel major control over when they work.

Ironically, some workplace supports are often administrated in ways that continue to limit employees control and rarely promote changes that affect employees’ experiences on the job or their ability to manage other parts of their lives. Supervisors generally decide (Kelly, Moen, 2007). Furthermore, some flexible work practices offer little discretion over schedules, instead creating new routines that are rigid as well. Thus, flextime often means setting customized starting and stopping times but employees must be present during designated hours. Other supports require an employee to choose starting and stopping times and adhere to them for months, rather than allowing daily flextime shifting the hours as he needs (Galinsky et al., 2005). Hence, only the schedule control as “the ability to determine when one works and how many hours one works” (Kelly, Moen, 2007, p. 491) is a relevant aspect that increases the perceptions of workers’ autonomy over their timetables and impacts positively on individuals’ work-life balance. It has been proved that perceived control mediates the relationship between the availability of flexible schedules and decreased work-family conflict (Thomas, Ganster, 1995).

Getting to the point, how to achieve workers’ schedule control in order to make workplace supports concretely effective? The presence and the agency of trade unions in the work organization is crucial. Through collective bargaining methods, trade unions can play a relevant role in enhancing schedule control in the workplace, especially giving workers a wider choice over the duration and scheduling their working hours. Also, they increase employees’ bargaining power (McCann, Sangheon, 2011). The best practices in many industrialized European countries have proven that the presence of negotiating processes in the workplace between representatives of employers and trade unions enables to fashion innovative regulatory regimes that balance flexibility with the need to maintain effective labor standards by providing a framework for the regulation of working time. The strong regulatory frameworks allow space for the social partners to craft innovative arrangements. This makes it possible for a reduction in working hours to be accompanied by enterprise level agreements that meet the interests of both enterprises and those of workers for greater control over their working hours (McCann, Sangheon, 2011). Hence, a “regulated flexibility” through the action of the state and trade unions can overcome the dark side of flexible work arrangements and ensure all workers their own balance between work and non-work sphere. It is not a fortuity that social democratic countries with a major presence of these agents of change such as the state and trade unions have a higher level of work-life balance satisfaction.

 

Conclusions

 

The purpose of the essay was to comprehend whether the two dimensions of flexibility, spatial and temporal one, benefit or harm the work-life balance. Taking the cue from academic researches and quantitative data, the first section of the paper has analyzed the concept of work flexibility pertaining to both temporal and spatial dimensions concluding that spatial flexibility is not associated with a meaningful perception of work-life balance while temporal flexibility is potentially beneficial. Successively, the essay has focused on temporal flexibility and its limitations attributable to the unsocial working hours in the 24/7 economy and the overwork. This double-sided aspect of temporal flexibility has led to the idea that flexible work time arrangements can have positive or negative effects. Thus, indispensable supports are needed to enhance the brighter sphere of flexibility. Finally, the third section has demonstrated that among several backing measures, the State is essential through the institutionalization of appropriate flexible work policies. Also, the workplace support is relevant through customized work schedules. Nevertheless, flexible timetables can be beneficial only if workers feel major control over when they work. Therefore, the essay has assumed that the fulfilment of this hypothesis depends on the influence of trade unions in the work organization. They can play a relevant role in enhancing the schedule control in the workplace through collective bargaining processes. To conclude, only a “regulated flexibility” through the action of the state and trade unions can overcome the dark side of flexible work time arrangements.

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